Census forms translate into local dollars
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:28 PM
"The U.S. Census forms showing up in local mailboxes this week are worth money, census officials say.About $800 apiece per year.That's how much local cities, counties, schools, social services agencies, road projects and other government programs and projects receive every year in this part of Washington state for each person counted in the decennial census, Mount Vernon Census office spokesman Mary Lisenbery said.So undercounts, which occur when people fail to return their census forms, or don't do it correctly, or otherwise fall through the cracks, can cost big bucks. In Oak Harbor alone, census officials estimate that 3.5 percent of the population went uncounted in the 1990 Census, Oak Harbor Complete Count Committee coordinator Chuck Crider said last week. That's about 600 people. If each was worth $800 per year for 10 years, the city and other local agencies lost a total of $4.8 million in the last decade in federal and state funds that were allocated according to population.This year's forms come in a short-form variety and a long form, Lisenbery said. One in every six homes will get a long form, with 34 questions that should take less than 40 minutes to answer. Most will get the much simpler seven-question short form, which should take less than 10 minutes. Forms were delivered directly to homes with box-only mail service - including most of Coupeville - last week, Lisenbery said. The rest were mailed to homes this week.Each form includes a bar code that is unique for that house, Lisenbery said, so it's important for people to fill out their own forms. If forms from another house, or blank forms taken from the Internet or some other location, are sent back, they won't register with Census counters, and a human enumerator will be sent to the address.The forms are due back by April 1. After that, paid enumerators will start visiting addresses that have not returned their forms yet, trying to complete the count, Lisenbery said. They will continue returning to each address until they either get a form filled out, or list it as uncountable.Information on Census forms is considered confidential, by law. There are stiff penalties and fines attached to breaching the confidentiality of individual forms, and information on each household is quickly separated from the address and name once it reaches the bureau's databases, making it tough for anyone to match private information with individual people.Due to a printer's error, thousands of forms in this region were mailed with an extra numeral 1 in front of people's addresses, Lisenbery said, but the post office has agreed to deliver regardless of the error, and it won't affect the counts.Most of the incomplete count in the 1990 Census involved homes in the southeast sector of Oak Harbor between Goldie Street and Regatta, Crider said, but local planner aren't sure why.A decennial census is required by the U.S. Constitution. It was originally intended to be used primarily for the fair apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. It has since come to be used as the basis for distributing billions of dollars in federal and state funds to local areas.Need help?If you're confused by something on your 2000 Census form, call the 800 number listed on the bottom of your form for help, or visit a local Questionaire Assistance Center:Coupeville: Whidbey Island Bank, Wednesdays and Thursdays 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., or Fridays 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.Oak Harbor: Senior Center, 51 SE Jerome St., Mondays 9 a.m to noon, Tuesdays 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Wednesdays 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.Department of Social and Health Services, 656 SE Bayshore, Oak Harbor: Wednesdays, Thursday and Fridays 8 a.m. to noon; Thursdays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.What's it for?Aside from drawing cash from federal and state programs, these are some of the uses U.S. Census information is put to locally, according to the city of Oak Harbor's Complete Count Committee:Traffic and services: The numbers help planners set bus routes to adjust for traffic congestion; offer services for the elderly; prevent overcrowded schools; provide libraries, day care and playgrounds; and offer job training programs.Health care: Helps health care providers respond to the spread of disease, floods and earthquakes.General planning: Numbers are used to plan for hospitals, highways, stadiums and school lunch programs.Businesses: Helps developers decide where to locate new shopping centers, housing, office buildings, theaters and restaurants."